Burger King launches TV ad that triggers Google Home: clever marketing trick or invasive ploy?

The new ad has raised concerns about privacy and security in a world of 'always listening' smart devices.

Nick Ut/AP/File
A car stops at the drive-thru at a Burger King restaurant near downtown Los Angeles.

On Wednesday, a Burger King television ad likely became the first ever to intentionally trigger smart devices like Google Home and Android phones. In the commercial, an actor faces the camera and clearly enunciates the phrase, "Okay, Google. What is the Whopper burger?" at the end of the advertisement.

Around the country, the audio clip prompted a response on a number of devices, with phones and smart speakers listing off the ingredients in the burger from the Whopper's information page on Wikipedia.

The new ad, however, was not well received by all. Some saw the triggering of their devices by the ad as a nuisance, while others found the commercial to be an uncomfortable reminder of the intrusion of advertising in a world peppered with "always-listening" smart devices. Google, which had not consulted with Burger King for the commercial, disabled the Google Home's ability to be awakened by the advertisement within a day of its first airing.

The response to the new ad highlights many of the concerns associated with privacy and security concerns in an increasingly digital world. But while this might be the first ad to target users who already own a Google Home or other listening smart device, privacy-invading strategies companies use to target customers are nothing new, says Saleem Alhabash, a professor of Public Relations and Social Media at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich.

"Behavioral targeting has been applied for quite some time now," Dr. Alhabash tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "Advertisers, including Google, have been recording our digital traces and through algorithmic manipulation, providing us with tailored ads that are more meaningful to us."

The new Burger King ad is simply an extension of this general philosophy, he says. But while being on the cutting edge of new types of advertising like this can pay big dividends, it can also be risky. After all, consumer backlash can be hard to predict, especially with a new type of commercial like this.

"Across different generational groups, consumers are well aware of the dangers and threats to their own security and privacy online. They know what the deal is," Alhabash adds. "In a lot of instances, they feel that protecting their privacy online is such a behemoth that they end up feeling defeated and give in to the idea of them not being able to protect their privacy. However, when an ad like the Burger King one floats to the surface, consumers are reminded of how vulnerable they are."

That, he says, is part of the reason this ad has struck such a dissonant chord with many viewers. But that wasn't the only way the ad backfired.

As the new commercial first began to air, many viewers realized that the information read out by Google Homes and Android devices came directly from Wikipedia, which can be edited by anyone. Soon, the description of the Whopper on the Wikipedia page was altered to contain a list of fictitious and disgusting ingredients, with one edit identifying the Whopper as "the worst hamburger product" sold by the fast food chain. Burger King quickly took steps to restore a more palatable-sounding Wikipedia entry, but before long it had encountered another problem: Google.

"Google has not been consulted on this, therefore, it is not getting any of the advertising dollars spent on this ad," says Alhabash. "Google wants a piece of the pie."

The tech giant found itself in the position of having its own products activated in an ad that many disliked, without any compensation. Before long, users reported that the new commercial no longer activated their Google Homes, and Burger King informed The New York Times that Google had made alterations that specifically prevented the ad's audio waking up the devices, thereby weakening the effectiveness of the new campaign.

The deactivation by Google comes only a few weeks after the tech giant found itself in a similar position to Burger King when some Google Home users reacted negatively to what seemed to be a promotion for Disney's recent live-action Beauty and the Beast film tucked in between the weather and the news. The promotion, which played on a few devices on the day of the film's release, "wasn't intended to be an ad," according to a Google spokesperson.

But despite the fair amount of negative feedback for this kind of invasive advertising, the new Burger King ad – as well as any copycat commercials that crop up – may yet be a success, says Jenny Olson, a professor of marketing at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan.

"From a marketing standpoint, Burger King achieved their objective of capturing consumers' attention in an increasingly saturated mediascape," Dr. Olson tells the Monitor via email. "Honestly, when I first heard about the ad (despite potential privacy concerns), my reaction was 'Wow, that's pretty clever!' This sort of advertising is something we’re going to be seeing more of as AI devices become more common in our homes."

The purpose of advertising, after all, is to generate buzz – not just about the product, but also about the commercial itself – and in that regard, the invasive ad has been immensely successful, Olson says.

"Burger King certainly took a risk in going this route.... [And] even if the ad doesn't translate into increased sales of Whoppers, it's started an important conversation about privacy and ethics of advertising on these new platforms," she says.

This article contains material from the Associated Press.

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